It is always draft season.
With the explosion of coverage all over the internet, and the ability of fans and evaluators alike to follow prospects year-round on YouTube and elsewhere, the NFL draft has never been more popular. Adding to that is the fact that in recent years we have seen younger players, even at the quarterback position, come into the league and have early success. Putting those factors together means that - again - it is always draft season.
With that in mind it's time to start talking about the 2020 QB class. As with every draft cycle there are quarterbacks near the top of boards that you might expect and there are some new names to think about as we start evaluating the next cycle. In this two-part series here at Pro Football Weekly we're going to look at the top two tiers of quarterbacks as they stand right now here in October, breaking down six different passers. There will be some names that you recognize and some names that might be a little new. But if you are a fan of a team that might be looking for a quarterback, this might be a draft class to be excited about.
In terms of how the tiers are divided, the first group of three passers are quarterbacks I would view as first-round picks right now, and the second group of three are QBs I would view as early Day Two selections.
We can start with a name that you probably recognize. The Alabama passer is off to another impressive start here in the 2019 campaign. Through six games he has completed 73.6% of his passes for over 2,000 yards and a whopping 27 touchdowns with just one interception, which came just last week against Texas A&M. There are a number of reasons why the phrase “Tank for Tua” has become national lingo, and it's because he brings to the table as a passer a number of traits that NFL evaluators crave. He has crisp mechanics, solid footwork and incredibly quick decision-making on a number of different route concepts and throws with pretty good anticipation for a college passer.
In addition, in the Alabama offense you can see him working through full-field progression reads and making the right decision with a football on almost every single passing play. You put this package together and it builds a complete quarterback perhaps ideal for the new wave of NFL offenses.
Let's start by looking at Tagovailoa and his processing speed and mechanics. We can start with a play against South Carolina with Tagovailoa (#13) in the shotgun and two receivers to each side of the formation. South Carolina responds with just three down lineman as they look to protect against the pass.
The Crimson Tide turn to the run/pass option game, with Tagovailoa meeting running back Najee Harris (#22) at the mesh point. The run element of this play is an outside zone play to the right side, with the offensive line flowing in unison to the right to block up the potential handoff. Backside, the receivers run a quick flat and posts combination.
What stands out on this play from Tagovailoa are the mechanics and the velocity, in addition to the processing speed in making this decision. As a left-handed quarterback, he needs to pay particular attention to his feet and mechanics on this play if he is going to pull and throw. He rides Harris for a few steps to sell the run action, then pulls the football and makes sure to set his feet, before uncorking an impressive throw with velocity:
This throw comes with a very quick and crisp release, which is another part of Tagovailoa’s game that is particularly impressive. His quick release is apparent on this throw as well:
Again, Tagovailoa comes out of a run fake and needs to reset his feet quickly to make this throw. He does that with impressive quickness and fluidity, enabling him to throw this quick slant to Henry Ruggs (#11) with velocity and precision. Tagovailoa’s ability to make quick decisions and snap throws out of his hand in an instant gives his receivers opportunities after the catch.
Tagovailoa might be a perfect quarterback for the new generation of NFL offenses that look to get the ball out quickly to receivers in space off of RPO elements and using spread designs. His placement in the short area of the field, coupled with his quick processing speed on these designs and his quick release, make him a good fit for these systems. Here is another example of that in action:
This is a 3rd and 8 play against South Carolina, and the Crimson Tide runs double slants (called either Tosser in the New England Patriots’ playbook or Slants in the Philadelphia Eagles’ playbook) to the left side of the field. Tagovailoa uses a three-step drop from shotgun, and once he hits his drop depth he has determined that he will throw the outside slant (again highlighting his processing speed) and the ball comes out on time with perfect placement. This is a concept - along with many quick game designs - that he could run immediately at the next level.
Speaking of the next level, when we think of NFL offenses we often think of full-field progression reads. We picture a quarterback in the pocket scanning through options as the pass rush starts to close in on him. Well, if a QB with the ability to make progression reads is your bag, you’ll remain excited about Tagovailoa.
On this 2nd and 9 against South Carolina, the Crimson Tide run a a Mesh Z-Sit concept that gives the QB these options to choose from:
Tagovailoa reads the mesh part of the play first, then peeks at the running back wheel out of the backfield to the left, and finally comes to the running back swing route on the right side, getting to his fourth read in the progression for a big gain:
Finally, another element that Tagovailoa brings to the table is his athleticism, even when the pocket truly collapses around him. On this play against New Mexico State he is able to avoid a sack while keeping his eyes downfield, and makes an impressive throw in a scramble drill situation to move the chains:
Now before we move on to the next quarterback, we can try and highlight some of the “red flags” we might hear about for Tagovailoa during draft season. Every cycle we hear stories of concerns that scouts might have about given players, particularly at the quarterback position. With Tagovailoa one we might hear is accuracy. You saw it on the previous play, with a low throw. He might face questions about how precise his ball placement is down the field. Those concerns could be exacerbated by the fact that most of the time, his receivers are wide open. People might wonder how he will do against tougher competition in the NFL and tight man coverage.
For me, that goes to more of a scheme issue than anything else. I think depending on how you use Tagovailoa, his placement should be just fine at the next level.
Speaking of competition, another issue people might have with him is that the talent around him is so elite, especially at the skill positions. Can he raise the level of play in those around him? That might be another question he will need to answer as this season progresses.
Coming into this season, Tagovailoa and Herbert were the two names most often discussed when thinking about the next quarterback class. While Herbert has not produced the same kind of numbers that Tagovailoa has so far this season, he has completed 69.1% of his passes for 1,602 yards and 17 touchdowns, also with just one interception. After a loss in their season-opener against Auburn, the Oregon Ducks are 5-1 and unbeaten in conference play.
Herbert’s most recent game, a 45-3 victory over the University of Colorado, highlighted some of what has scouts excited about him. We can start with his arm. Herbert has the ability to make those “NFL throws” that get general managers salivating. Take this example, the proverbial “hashmark to opposite sideline throw” on a deep out pattern:
The Ducks face an early 2nd and 9 here, with the football on their own 28-yard line and on the left hash mark. Coming out of a run fake Herbert (#10) opens to the left side of the field before coming back to the right to throw this deep out. He releases this throw from his own 19-yard line and just inside the left hash, and his target pulls in the throw at the 48-yard line, just inside the sideline. In yardage terms it covers 29 yards, but Pythagoras would tell us this throw travels much longer. But Herbert drives this in with impressive velocity.
Here is another “NFL throw,” as he delivers a precision strike on a seam route deep downfield:
What stands out about this throw is the perfect spiral, and how the ball “turns over” at the end of its flight, dipping right down into the upfield shoulder of the target. You simply cannot throw a seam route better than this. As recent studies have told us, the seams are the best areas of the field to attack a defense vertically:
Herbert’s ability to throw this route will translate well to the NFL.
We have seen recently some quarterbacks come into the league with impressive velocity and prowess in the vertical passing game, but they struggle with routes that require more touch and feel. Josh Allen is a recent example that comes to mind. But one of the things that I love about Herbert right now is how he has a good understanding of touch, feel and placement in the underneath passing game. On this crossing route, Herbert shows the ability to take a little off in the shorter passing game without losing accuracy or placement:
Rather than driving this throw in, you can see Herbert actually slow down his release and motion a bit, taking a little off of this throw. The pass is put into a perfect spot and he makes this an easier completion for his receiver.
As with Tagovailoa, Herbert also has the ability to work through progression reads, if that is something you are looking for in a quarterback. On this 1st and 10 play against the Buffaloes, this is the route concept Oregon dials up for him:
To the right side of the field Herbert has an Ohio, or go/flat, concept to read. Then he has a crossing route working from left to right, and finally his fourth read is a curl route on the outside to the left. Watch as he works through his options, gets to the final read and pulls the trigger:
Now, the placement here might be a bit off, but the pass is still catchable.
As far as potential red flags, his frame and durability probably jump out. He has battled injuries in the past, and with a leaner frame he might face questions about his ability to absorb the hits he will see at the next level. Additionally, his lower body mechanics are a bit unrefined. He can step into the bucket on some throws - something Chicago Bears fans might be familiar with - and his footwork on his drops into the pocket often lack structure. He will utilize a backpedal at times rather than a traditional drop, which can impact his lower body during the throwing motion.
Now we can get to the early darling of the quarterback class. While Tagovailoa and Herbert caught the preseason attention, the LSU senior has thrust himself into the first-round discussion with his play in the early going. The Tigers are unbeaten and Burrow already has two “statement games” under his belt, with an early win on the road at Texas, and last week’s victory at home against another highly ranked opponent. So far Burrow has completed nearly 80% of his passes for 2,157 yards and 25 touchdowns, against three interceptions.
Two areas that stand out to me with Burrow are manipulation and vertical passing. We can focus on his game against Texas. On this vertical show play, watch as Burrow (#9) uses his eyes to freeze the safety in the middle of the field, before dropping in a beautiful throw in the bucket to the outside:
The quarterback takes the snap and trains his eyes to the left side of the field, before coming very late to the right side of the formation so he can throw this vertical route along the sideline. Similar to a previous throw from Herbert, the pass turns over perfectly into the upfield shoulder of his intended receiver for a huge gain.
The corner route is one of the tougher passes to throw in football. A quarterback needs to navigate both the coverage and the sideline, as well as the angle of his target moving away from him. That is what makes this throw on a deep corner route against Texas so impressive from Burrow:
You cannot throw the corner route better than Burrow does on this play. He would finish this drive with another impressive vertical throw, a seam route for a touchdown:
The placement on this throw is perfect, high and away from an inside-leveraged defender. Again, seam routes are pretty important in the NFL, as the numbers tell us.
But let’s return to the idea of manipulation. This is where I think Burrow has really developed as a passer over the past year or so. Midway through the second quarter the Tigers trail 7-3 and face a somewhat pivotal third down early in the game. LSU has the football on the Longhorns’ six-yard line, facing a 3rd and goal. They line up for this third down with Burrow in the shotgun and in a 2x2 alignment:
At this point Burrow has no idea what kind of defense Texas is running on this play. But he starts to get some clues. First, the offense sends wide receiver Justin Jefferson (#2) in motion from right to left. Watch the defense as Jefferson crosses the formation:
None of the defenders trail Jefferson across the ball. That is a clue to Burrow that the Longhorns are in some kind of zone coverage scheme. He gets a second clue in a moment, when running back Lanard Fournette (#27) shifts from Burrow’s left to his right:
Again, the linebackers simply slide rather than switch or respond to the motion in a way that would indicate man coverage. Burrow can be pretty convinced that the defense is in a zone coverage. Looking at the defense now, with both safeties in the end zone, he can probably be correct in thinking the Longhorns are in a red zone Cover 2 coverage, often termed Red 2.
Here is the route concept:
Jefferson runs a route to the post, while Stephen Sullivan (#10), the single receiver split wide to the right, runs a curl route. The two receivers outside of Jefferson run a slant/flat combination. Fournette will release on a swing route to the right.
As Burrow expects, the defense is indeed in Red 2:
The route Burrow wants to throw here is the post to Jefferson. Against a Cover 2/Red 2 look that is a perfect read, as the middle of the field is open (often termed a MOFO read). But Burrow needs to be concerned with the safety shaded to Sullivan’s side of the field. If that backside safety jumps Jefferson’s post route, a throw in that direction could be dangerous.
So Burrow manipulates him with his eyes. Watch this play and pay particular attention to Burrow’s eyes:
The QB takes the snap and opens to Sullivan’s side of the field, which influences that safety. With the QB looking in that direction, that safety cannot poach the post route from Jefferson. At the last moment, Burrow brings his eyes to the middle of the field and throws the post route for the touchdown.
Here is the end zone angle of this play:
Again, we see the QB using his eyes to manipulate the defender and create space for the post route. Then, Burrow delivers with a well-placed throw for the score.
As far as red flags, Burrow is a bit of a later bloomer, given how he transferred from Ohio State and was not such a focal part of LSU’s offense last season. Some of the concerns that I had on him coming into this season, specifically some questionable decision making, have been alleviated by his play so far in 2019. He has some huge games remaining on the schedule, including of course LSU’s yearly tilt with Alabama, but if he keeps up his level of play, the two man race for QB1 might just become a three-man contest.